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Soviet animation was closely connected with folklore themes in the post Second World War years. However, it was not always the case. Early Soviet cartoons such as Soviet Toys were mostly propaganda pieces aimed at both adults and children. In the 1920s folklore themes were not considered appealing for future-oriented avant-garde Soviet culture. Things started to change in the 1930s when Stalin came to power. With rise of nationalism Soviet ideology changed to national roots and history. Interest in folklore was revived. One of the early folklore cartoons for children was produced by the newly-established major Soviet studio, Soyuzmultfilm. Black and white Ivashko and Baba-Yaga was filmed by the Brumberg sisters, Zinaida and Valentina. It is based on the folktale of the same name. Baba-Yaga, an evil witch, kidnaps a peasant boy, Ivashko (Ivan), and tries to eat him, but he is able to outsmart her and escapes home to his parents.

BabaYaga

Ivashko and Baba-Yaga (Ивашка и Баба-Яга), 1938

Russian

Olga Khodatayeva (1894-1968) was one of the first women in Soviet animation. She mastered fine arts in Moscow, worked as an illustrator, and joined the industry in 1924. She worked in Sovkino (later Mosfilm) and since 1936 she was employed as an animation director by Soyuzmultfilm, the biggest Soviet animation studio established in the same year by Stalin.

In 1928 Olga Khodatayeva produced a silent animation short Samoyed Boy (Самоедский мальчик), an anti-religious propaganda aimed at shamans of Nenets people, natives of the north of Russia. Her background in painting helped her to create much more polished animation than Vertov’s.

During her career, she managed to produce over 20 animation films. Among them are Disney style Tom Thumb (black and white, sound, 1938)

and highly praised beautifully executed A Fire Glowing in Yaranga (color, sound, 1956) based on the folk tales of the native peoples of the Russian north.

Awards: Venice Film Festival, 1956.

Notice that both films the adaptations of folk tales, typical for the socialistic realism period of Soviet animation (1930s-1950s).

Over a century ago viewers already enjoyed animation in Russia.  Ladislas Starevich (Władysław Starewicz, born in Moscow to Polish parents in 1882) was a photography and entomology enthusiast. Employed by the Museum of Natural History, Starevich, passionate about new media, created a series of documentaries. For one of the films about stag beetles, he had to create puppets out of insects. Lucanus Cervus shot in 1910 was the first stop-motion effort of Starevich. The animation effort was highly praised by one of the first Russian producers, Aleksandr Khanzhonkov. Soon other animation shorts followed featuring puppets created out of insects, wire, and wax. Early viewers sometimes assumed that films featured live insects were trained by Starevich

The first feature stop-motion film by Starevich

1910 – The Beautiful Lukanida (Прекрасная Люканида, или Война усачей с рогачами), a parody on early history blockbusters.

1912 – The Cameraman’s Revenge (Месть кинематографического оператора), a parody on melodrama

1911 – The Insects’ Christmas (Рождество обитателей леса)

1913 – The Ant and the Grasshopper (Муравей и Стрекоза) based on Aesop’s fable

Like many artists, Starevich moved to France after the Bolshevik revolution. Unlike many Russian directors and actors, Starevich built a successful career in cinema and animation in the interwar period. Some of his works include:

1923 – The Frogs Who Wanted a King – based on the fable by La Fontaine

1930 – The Tale of the Fox / Le Roman de Renard  – the first full-length animated film

1934 – The Mascot – a story of a  puppy that was so popular that Starevich was asked to create a series with the same character.